Personnel: Wanees Zarour (violin, frame drum, bells); Nick Macri (double bass).
Audio Mixer: Jeff Zeigler .
Recording information: Nada Studio, Chicago (2013/2014).
Ambsace is an archaic word defined as both the lowest roll on a pair of dice and a bit of bad luck or misfortune. As the title of the second collection of acoustic guitar duets by James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg, it seems more like a bit of clever wordplay as this record is anything but unfortunate. It's certainly tricky and a bit eccentric, but this nimble set of originals and adapted covers is bolder, craftier, and more captivating than most rock releases, and it does so without words. Elkington, an English-born Chicagoan with an eccentric rock and folk résumé (Richard Thompson, the Horse's Ha, the Zincs) and Salsburg, a Louisville-based folklorist and curator of the Alan Lomax archives, first joined together in 2011 when they agreed to attempt a duets project in spite of never having played together. Their debut, Avos, triumphantly dovetailed American and British acoustic traditions with a subtle layer of pop bubbling through its aquifer. Acoustic guitar duet albums are rare enough and generally have little hope of finding success, so the arrival of this wonderful second volume is, like its predecessor, an unexpected treat. Composed and arranged head to head over long weekends at each other's homes, Ambsace has an amiable Midwestern demeanor that overlays its tones of beauty, melancholy, and humor. Album-opener "Up of Stairs," with its percussive, folksy harmonies and dazzling cascades, is one the most immediately accessible displays of the duo's craft, which is heard more subtly on the slower, nuanced tracks like "The Unhaunted Williams" and the meandering "Rough Purr." The slowly evolving and mysteriously titled "The Narrowing of Grey Park" features the same thrilling arpeggiated pattern over and over as double bass, violin, and other textures ebb and flow throughout. Elkington and Salsburg's lively cover of the Smiths' "Reel Around the Fountain" is another bright spot, and their take on Duke Ellington's "Fleurette Africaine" is almost chilling in its hushed dissonance. "Great Big God of Hands" bookends its gorgeous melodic refrain with a more pensive conversation between the two guitars and is yet another major highlight on a record with no shortage of them. Comforting and utterly compelling at the same time, Ambsace is a remarkable reprise from this inspired duo. ~ Timothy Monger